The Leadership (2020)

“Leadership is easy when things are good. The ultimate test of leadership is can you do it effectively when things aren’t good?”

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Directed by Ili Baré

The Leadership follows 76 women as they embark on a leadership journey to change the course for women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM). The women are on Homeward Bound, a year long program that is dedicated to training women to be better leaders. This program hopes to put more science trained women in leadership positions and change the course of womens’ careers in STEMM, with the ultimate goal of a more ethical and empathetic world. This documentary focuses on the first 76 of the 1000 women that Homeward Bound plans to train over 10 years while they are on the last leg of the program – a 20 day leadership intensive on a ship in Antartica.

The Leadership exposes common issues for women in STEMM from imposter syndrome to sexual harassment and assault. Imposter syndrome is a constant feeling of inadequacy and non-belonging, despite these women having proved that they deserve their positions time and time again. This is explored through Dr. Sarah Charnaud, a molecular parasitologist, when discussing how she was chosen for the program:

“The first thing I thought when I got picked was it must have been a hoax, because why would anyone choose me.”

The documentary also examines the lack of job security in science, as although Dr. Charnaud has been working on the same project for nine years, she has only ever had one year contracts;

“I’ve never asked for a raise. Ah, you figure you’re lucky to get what you’re given.”

Dr. Deborah Pardo exposes us to the fear associated with having to take maternity leave and explains that it may ruin your chances for acquiring or maintaining permanent work;

“I felt, well… you feel ashamed and guilty in a way because you know you are going to slow down the research process and having a break is losing time in the race for a permanent position.”

Dr. Pardo’s fear is very realistic as Dr. Samantha Grover, a soil scientist, lost her job twice after having children;

“Both times I took maternity leave as a post doc those two jobs ended and I was quite devastated.”

The documentary ensures that even though it is exposing these problems through specific women, the audience understands that this is a universal problem, by quoting facts from reputable sources;

“43% of women leave full time STEM careers after having children.”

The implied benefit of government paid childcare, equal division of caring responsibilities and house work, and equal paid paternity leave is clearly evident, as a huge number of women are falling out of STEMM at this pinch point. If men were able to take the same amount of paid leave after having a child, then the argument that women aged 20-40 are a risk when compared against their male peers as they could take months of paid leave, becomes mute.

The more subtle sexism that female scientists experience on a daily basis becomes evident when the film interviews Dr. Charnaud’s supervisor, who thinks that women are just not as competitive as men and therefore do not do as well in science;

“It’s a very tough, competitive environment. Perhaps that just suits the men a little bit more, I don’t know.”

Dr. Paul Gilson

The documentary also examines how these women came to be on board the ship. They had to raise over $30,000 which involved the running of bake sales and even some women mortgaging their houses;

“You’d never ask a Dean of Faculty to sell baked goods in order to get leadership development.”

The idea that women felt that this leadership training was necessary to changing the world, and that they had to find the funding themselves rather than their organisation paying for it, suggests an innate issue. Not only do these women not feel good enough to be in leadership positions, but their organisations also do not feel they are good enough either as otherwise they would already be working in these positions. Equally disappointing, their organisations clearly believe that paying for their training to improve is not worth it.

The lack of women in these leadership positions becomes clear as women on this boat are constantly in situations where they are the only singular woman in the room;

“The majority of women on this ship are the only women in their departments, or in their school.”

This becomes an issue for female scientists, especially those out in the field, who are denied field work opportunities because the organisations cannot support women, whatever that means, or because the women are actually in danger from the men on the trip;

“71% of women in field sciences have experienced sexual harassment. 26% have experienced sexual assault. Less that one quarter of cases are officially reported.”

Having very few female scientists in a field, is not only a problem for current and future female scientists, it is also a problem for all women. If science is being led, designed and carried out by men without female input, there are actual real life consequences.

“For instance, Female crash test dummies are really just smaller versions of the male car crash dummies. They don’t really account for women’s physiological features… They are 20 to 40 percent more likely to be seriously injured or killed in a car accident. It’s another example of male bodies serving as the template for all human bodies.”

Therefore, we need diversity in science not only because everyone deserves equal opportunity, but because without diversity we are actually putting lives at risk.

The Leadership really tries to show these women as well rounded, 3-Dimensional characters. We see them with their children, in their homes, but also who they were as children themselves. We are shown family photos and home videos, we see the passion they had for science before these more complex issues were involved, and the excitement they still have for their work. We watch as they show us different species of albatrosses and how they are being impacted by climate change, or explain to us the role of moss in soil production, but also what the presence of moss in Antartica means for the climate. This creates images of these women as passionate but also very competent at their jobs. It is clear that they rightly deserve to be scientists.

It becomes obvious however that whether these women stay in science does not actually depend on their scientific ability or leadership skills, but on the opinions of those around them and their ability to self-promote;

“Male scientists cite their own research 70% more than female scientists. A high citation index leads to promotion.”

The women are also taught;

“…we keep being given the notion that it is meritocracy which allows you to be selected for leadership. And it is unequivocally bullshit.”

The stories of these women are told over the backdrop of stunning drone footage of Antartica and we are exposed to its beauty, its dangers but also to its fragility. This becomes a metaphor for the trip;

“It won’t stand too much of that before it blows.”

The crashing down of ice into the ocean a signal for a change in direction of the film.

The Leadership, which started out as about the female scientists growing as leaders, becomes about leadership itself. The change in focus in the documentary is not seamless, and feels a little forced, with the unexpected change in direction being as startling for the audience as it probably was for the crew themselves.

This change in direction, to one about leadership itself, centres on the facilitator of the program – Fabian Dattner. She describes that the test of a leader is to still lead effectively when things are not going to plan. This is Fabian’s test;

“The expectation, personally, I have of the trip is, it will be 70% as good as the next trip. And that there is high tolerance for things not going to plan.”

We watch Fabian as she leads this trip. We observe her swear:

“Oh My God! We did it! What the fuck?”

We observe her talk over others, hug people she does not know without permission, and humiliate the people that she is trying to teach:

“I quite like public humiliation.”

Then when people criticise her, we watch her deny it all. The film also perfectly captures the moment people feel intimidated, and can feel they are no longer being listened to. The constant nodding and replying yes is shown in difference instances throughout the film as the scientists interact with Fabian and try to provide constructive criticism. These are the moments a good leader should recognise and realise that although the person is nodding, they do not agree and have given up trying to get their point across.

The film also acknowledges race issues within the program through Sonqiao Yao. She explains the added cultural issues for female Chinese scientists, where female PhD students are described as a completely seperate third gender, and that she herself is described as a person of six no’s: no house, no car, no good insurance, no husband, no children and no stable job. This is an insulting comment which is very difficult for her family. She explains that Homeward Bound teaches leadership in a very western format as leadership is taught at a personal level on the boat. Unfortunately, as Sonqiao explains, this may not translate very well for her because Chinese culture includes a strong sense of community and the collective, and therefore the program would need to be altered to make it more inclusive. She also points out that the emotional intelligence questions involved western faces and therefore someone with an eastern background may not score as well because the faces are non-familiar, rather than because of they have low emotional intelligence.

Sonqiao is not the only one to bring up criticisms about race on the program, as the women included are mostly white women, however these criticisms are refused to be acknowledged by the facilitator.

The Leadership allows us an intimate insight into these womens’ lives and enables us to watch them grow. It exposes discrimination towards women in science, but ultimately explores the question of what it takes to be a good leader. This is all discussed with a background of beautiful and powerful images of Antartica, representing the fragile state of both the world due to climate change and also the position of these women in science. It is a fantastic exposé into the science world and just how tough choosing a career in science can be.

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